Though it begins and ends with Pakrat, this story makes good use of the full Atari Force team, a fitting final adventure. Technically it has to take place sometime in the middle of the main series, since they are still on Scanner One and Blackjak's not there, but in terms of publication chronology it is the last thing they ever did. And considering that, aside from colorist Tom Ziuko, all of the creators are new names for Atari Force, it's a damn fine one-off story.
Clocking in at twenty pages, "Second Skin" is effectively a full-length issue of its own, longer, even than the sixteen-page lead stories of almost the full second half of the main series. It gets a lot done in the space it has. Dwight Jon Zimmerman finds something for everyone to do, telling a single, focused narrative about the team working toward a common goal. There's humor, action, robots, a dash of in-fighting, and the inadvertent destruction of an entire planet. It's a celebration of the immense potential of this book, a demonstration of the strength and flexibility of its cast and reality. As nice a send-off as it is here at the end of the last comic to ever bear the name Atari Force, it's also a reminder that the series ended too soon.
Pakrat falls out of bed because something unseen and unknown is causing a massive disturbance throughout the ship. His assumption is that they've been hit, but he soon finds the rest of the team and Martin informs them that it must have come from inside the ship because there's no hull damage. Everyone splits up to determine what caused the commotion, except for Pakrat who follows a trail of gems he's discovered instead. Those gems end up leading him right to the cause of all the chaos, though: Babe is shedding his skin, which is where the gems come from, and he's doing it by rubbing his back against the ship's interior, which is damaging its systems. His hide shreds the life-support mechanism, so the team is forced to land in order to attempt repairs. The closest available planet is dotted with radioactive hot spots and has absolutely no life signs, indicating some sort of catastrophic nuclear war in its past. But Atari Force manages to locate a radiation-free butte, so while Martin and Tempest work on fixing Scanner One via Tempest's phasing abilities, the rest of the group heads outside so Babe can have space to shed freely.
The repairs run relatively smoothly, except that Tempest is all moody about it like he always is when dealing with his dad. On the planet's surface, however, there is brand new trouble introduced right away. Babe begins rolling on the ground to relieve the itchy discomfort of his shedding, but he immediately opens a large hole and falls down into the darkness. Dart climbs down after him, but rather than finding a rough, unfinished, natural space underground, she discovers a smooth, man-made maze of some kind. At the same time, the reader is shown the various automated defense systems of this place come online---robot security guards, machine guns in the walls, etc. With no sign of Babe and evidence that this chasm is more than it first appeared to be, Dart calls for the rest of the landing party to help her in her search. Morphea and Pakrat climb down while Taz keeps watch above, and the true heart of this adventure begins.
In rapid succession, the team discovers a massive bomb suspended over a pit leading to the planet's core, get attacked by a gang of gigantic robots that they defeat fairly easily, find Babe, watch Babe get shot up by the machine guns in the wall, and discover just how tough their youngest member is when the guns not only fail to hurt him but actually assist in his shedding process. Once his old skin has been removed completely, Babe crushes the guns like they're tin foil, and then absorbs the blast of a small explosive device that falls at his feet. He's the world's greatest defensive player, accidentally blocking these attacks through his size and physical firmness. By the time he has finished shutting down the various underground defenses, Scanner One is operational again, so Atari Force takes their leave of the ruined and dangerous planet.
And not a moment too soon, as the huge bomb they discovered earlier is automatically dropped and, ultimately, causes an explosion large enough to shatter the whole planet into countless chunks of space garbage. Atari Force is shocked and saddened by the catastrophic event, except, of course, for Pakrat, who has a pouch full of Babe skin that he thinks will make him rich if and when he gets back to New Earth. But unfortunately for him, it turns out that the gems have turned to valueless dust, a fact that leaves Pakrat dumbfounded but gives his teammates a welcome excuse to laugh. This is the closing panel, Atari Force standing around Pakrat and teasing him as he stares gap-mouthed at the pile of blue powder pouring from his bag. It's a lighthearted final note at the end of a strong if simple story, and a pleasant place to leave this team.
What I like most about this story is how completely Zimmerman gets all the members of the cast. Martin is the stern and decisive leader. Tempest is the brat with the amazing powers. Dart is the level-headed tactician. Morphea is the concerned mother to Babe's innocent yet mighty infant. Pakrat is selfish but harmless. Taz is a dutiful soldier. Because this story acts as the last word on Atari Force, I'm extremely grateful for these spot on characterizations. Had Zimmerman been less on point, it could easily have left a rotten taste in my mouth, and that'd be a real bummer since this is the final story to ever be told about these characters. It's not a dazzling narrative on its own, but it is solid and moves forward at a steady and engaging pace, and it does so with one of the strongest representations of one of the most interesting casts in comics.
James Fry's pencils, inked by Kyle Baker, are not quite so strong as the writing, but still very good. They are a bit shadier and, at times, smudgier than is normal for this title, and I'm not sure if that should be attributed to Fry or Baker or both. But they're not unclear, and no less expressive than the work done on the main series. Just, at times, a bit less detailed or precise. And the new elements, the robotic attackers and giant bombs, lack some of the creative spark that the character designs tend to possess. Not that they look ugly, they're just a bit blander and more uniform than usual. So the art is looser and less stunning on the whole, but still serviceable throughout. And, like Zimmerman's writing, Fry and Baker stay true to the original looks and personalities of the titular team, which is really all they needed to do to make this a worthwhile read.
Wow...believe it or not, that is it for specified reviews of Atari Force stuff. I made it! It's a positive piece to end on, a shining example of why this series is still good all these years later, and why the relative lack of material in the Atari Force library is such a shame. I would have liked to see more of these self-contained escapades, either set in the midst of the main series like this one, or continuing the adventures of the group after the close of issue #20. But I've got to be content with what's available, and looking at it that way, this final piece of the 1986 special is a real treat. It's the only standalone, full-team story ever written, and a mighty enjoyable one at that.